Atomic Heart has a great aesthetic in search of a more interesting game

I think it was the second time Atomic Heart’s (opens in new tab) protagonist uttered his quasi-catchphrase—a flabbergasted “Crispy critters!”—that I began to worry that my hopes for the game had been misplaced. An FPS with RPG elements and a lot of immersive sim inspiration, it’s been one of the most intriguing games on my radar ever since its first trailer dropped back in 2018 (opens in new tab), echoing BioShock, Stalker, Nier—basically everything pensive, ambitious, and weird—and locating it all in a retro-future Soviet utopia-gone-awry. Even the soundtrack for those trailers, featuring some of the most potent deployments of Alla Pugacheva (opens in new tab) since the fall of the Berlin Wall, seemed to promise something that was self-assured and interesting. But having gotten some hands-on time with it, I’m worried Atomic Heart might not be very interesting at all.

Pretty vacant

Let’s start with the good stuff: Atomic Heart looks great. Imagine the pomaded, pearly-toothed optimism that we associate with the 1950s USA in our own reality, and transplant it into a world of towering Stalinist skyscrapers and cloyingly-helpful robots. A technological revolution has turned the USSR into a seemingly-uncontested global hegemon in the game’s version of 1955, and everyone’s having a grand old time while an android workforce—whose designs range from standard uncanny valley humanoid fare to shambling, pot-bellied things reminiscent of that 2005 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (opens in new tab) film—does all the actual labour. The trailers weren’t lying, the game really is impressively visually creative.

An image of a Soviet city in Atomic Heart, strewn with advertisements and propaganda.

(Image credit: Mundfish)

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But as exciting as Atomic Heart looks, I never got the impression the game was ever going to find much to actually say about a lot of this stuff. As a game from a Russian studio that draws obvious inspiration from BioShock, I’d gone into Atomic Heart with high hopes for some unique historical reflection. But outside of a few stale social credit (opens in new tab) jokes, the game never really seems to have much interest in the actual Soviet Union as anything other than a source of immediately-recognisable visual weirdness. Nu, Pogodi! (opens in new tab) plays in the game’s save rooms (an oddly Resident Evil-ish touch) and random Soviet propaganda posters deck the ruined halls of facility 3826 (opens in new tab), but they only feel like easter eggs for those of us nerdy enough to care. From what I’ve played, it’s disappointingly uninterested in historical Soviet socialism.

It is interested in comedy, though, which I can’t say I was expecting. Whether it’s the rocket-launcher-toting grandma or the tediously horny weapons upgrade robot that turns every interaction into an extended gag about ‘inserting’ materials, Atomic Heart is inescapably zany. A lot of the humour comes from the player character, Major Nechaev, and his AI companion Charles. The pair have a kind of comedy double-act thing going on, with Charles the exasperated straight man to Nechaev’s quippy protagonist. Before I was even five minutes into playing, I innocently interacted with a phone booth and was baffled to find myself engaged in a scene in which Nechaev asked a stranger on the other end of the line if they had Prince Albert in a can. Charles was not amused.

An image of Nechaev and Granny Zina from Atomic Heart.

(Image credit: Mundfish)

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Nu, Pogodi! plays in the game’s save rooms and random Soviet propaganda posters deck the ruined halls of facility 3826, but they only feel like easter eggs for those of us nerdy enough to care

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